Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

A tale I have for you…
~ William Fowler

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The time is the 1570s. Mary Queen of Scots has fallen from power and fled to France, and the boy King, Jamie Saxt, is in Stirling Castle – for his protection or as prisoner is a matter of interpretation – while Scotland is being governed by Regent Morton. John Knox is dead but his Reformation is thriving. The power struggle between Reformists and Roman Catholics is ongoing, with control of the young King at the heart of it. Two previous Regents have died, probably murdered, and both factions have taken turns at burning “martyrs”. Our narrator is Will Fowler, little more than a boy when the story begins, off to study at St Andrews, even then one of the ancient centres of learning – and politics, and plots, and skulduggery. And when Will and his new friend Tom Nicolson accidentally become embroiled in an incident in a pub, they find they have unwittingly foiled a plot and, in so doing, have aligned themselves with the Reformists, making enemies of the powerful Catholic family, the Hamiltons, and becoming friends with the adventurous and dangerous young Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the “Bold Buccleuch”, and his kin. These friendships and enmities will shape young Will’s future, as will his love for Tom’s lovely and wilful sister, Rose Nicolson…

Do you ever get that lovely feeling that an author has written a book specially for you? That’s how I feel about this one. It has everything I want in a Scottish novel: an interesting period of history that has nothing to do with Jacobites, nor Mary Queen of Scots, nor Glasgow gangs, nor dreary twentieth century alcoholics; a wonderful use of old Scots vocabulary, but avoiding too much hard to read dialect; exciting adventures, happening to likeable and entertaining characters; real insight into how people lived, thought and acted in the time; knowledgable and affectionate insight, too, into the Scottish literary tradition; a touch of romance, but avoiding all soppiness; and some beautifully presented and well-timed humour, often at the expense of the religious divides that continue to plague Scotland into the present. I’ve loved Andrew Greig’s writing over several books, but often haven’t particularly enjoyed the subjects he’s chosen, so it’s a real delight for me to finally have the joy of that great writing in a story that seems custom-made to suit my preferences!

William Fowler of Embra (Edinburgh) was a real person – a makar (poet), writer, translator and courtier, who got involved in the various political shenanigans going on in Scotland at this muddled and perilous time. Here, Greig gives us just the early years of Fowler’s life, (and I sincerely hope he’s working hard on a follow-up, since the latter part of his career sounds just as interesting).

James VI of Scotland and I of England as a boy
“Jamie Saxt”

In theory I know about this period, having studied it somewhat superficially long ago, and as far as I can tell it’s historically accurate – it’s certainly entirely convincing, and delightfully free of anachronistic attitudes forced onto the historical characters. Almost every character in it is a real person – I think only the Nicolsons and occasional peripheral characters are an outright creation of the author, though I stand to be corrected if I’m wrong on that. Given that I struggled from time to time to place people in their correct factions, I did wonder whether this would be a difficult one for people with no knowledge of the history, but I found as I read on that gradually it all became clear, so I feel it would work even for newcomers to the period and is a painless and enjoyable way to learn a little about this interesting time. I felt that a character list showing titles and religious and political affiliations would have been helpful, especially in the early stages – I was reading a NetGalley copy, so don’t know whether that is perhaps included in the published version. There is a guide to archaic Scots vocabulary, in my copy at the end of the book, although happily (being an archaic Scot) I didn’t find much need to refer to it. Greig is great at putting possibly unfamiliar words into context so that their meaning is obvious.

Greig is himself a poet, and his love of being part of the long and ancient tradition of Scottish poetry shows through often in his work. Here he gives a lovely picture of the young Will’s development as a poet, at first derivative of the poets he himself revered before gradually finding his own style. Unfortunately I couldn’t find much of Fowler’s poetry online, but I felt Greig gave a great flavour, not just of him but of some of the earlier poets he shows Fowler as admiring. (It (almost) made me want to revisit some of those early incomprehensible Scottish poets forced on me long ago in school!)

Andrew Greig

Goodness, 800 words* and I’ve barely mentioned Rose! Rose is a great character too, an intelligent and opinionated young woman restricted by both gender and class. Educated beyond her social level by her brother Tom, she struggles to conform to society’s expectations and, as happened frequently in those days to women who couldn’t conform, falls foul of the church. Will’s passion for her is beautifully done – a boyish infatuation that slowly matures into true friendship and love. Although Rose’s story gives a structure to the book, the real star is Will and the meat of it, for me at least, lies in the political machinations of the Reformation. Oh dear, I haven’t talked enough about the King, either, or Walter Scott and the border reiving, or the Earl of Bothwell, or Will’s adventures in Paris! There’s nothing else for it – you’ll just have to read it for yourself! My highest recommendation for this wonderful book!

*I seem to have confused everyone with this. I’m commenting on the excessive length of my review, not the book. The paperback is 464 pages and every word a delight.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

Amazon UK Link

43 thoughts on “Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

  1. Oh, this does sound fantastic, FictionFan! I’m especially interested in the fact that it’s about a part of history that I don’t know enough about. Will sounds like an interesting character, too – both in real life and here. It’s not easy to mix actual history with fiction, but it sounds as though it’s been done very well here, and I’m glad for you. I’m going to have to look this one up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So happy it wasn’t about those pesky Jacobites for once! This is such an interesting period and he handles it so well, and picking a poet as his protagonist was inspired given his own knowledge of Scottish poetry. This one will be appearing in the FF Awards this year, for sure! 😀

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  2. What a lovely review. I especially love that this book felt like it was written for you. Wonderful! Gotta love a book that isn’t set during a period of history that has been done to death. (Like the Civil War in the States.)

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    • It’s such a wonderful feeling when a book so exactly matches your own tastes. I couldn’t find a single thing to criticise for once! 😉 Scottish historical fiction is fixated on the Jacobites usually and I’m so tired of them now – it was great to read about a different period for once! 😀

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  3. Eight hundred pages?? Oh, dear, that’s one LONG novel! I’m glad to hear how much you enjoyed it though. Isn’t it grand when we come across a book that provides so much reading pleasure?

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    • Haha, no, I was criticising the length of my review not his book! It comes in at 460 pages, so longish but not a complete brick! And every word a pleasure. It took me weeks to read but only because I never felt like rushing or skimming as I so often do… 😀

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  4. This sounds great! It’s going on my wishlist, but will have to wait until I have time to tackle a lengthy book (and I already have lots of those in my TBR!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Between us, Debbie and I have misled everyone – it’s not that long really, only about 460 pages. It was my review I was criticising for being too long, not the book! 😀 It really is wonderful, and not full of incomprehensible dialect or anything. Just enough to give a flavour of Scottishness. 😀

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  5. This sounds wonderful, straight on my list. I’ve only just come across the term maker for poet and I think that was in Ireland (sorry, that all sounds very England centric, I don’t mean it to be!) But now I’ve heard it twice in quick succession and probably will keep doing so now!

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    • We still have a national Makar – the Scottish version of the Poet Laureate. I say still, but actually I think it’s “again” – I think we restarted the tradition round about the time of devolution. Currently it’s Kathleen Jamie, if you’ve ever come across her – she’s done a fair amount of essays of a kind of nature-plus-philosophy type. Lovely writer, though I fear I haven’t read any of her poetry. Anyway, this book is wonderful – if you do read it, I hope it gives you as much pleasure as it gave me!

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  6. Good thing it’s not available in the U.S. yet….otherwise, I’d be sending off for it immediately. As it is, I’ve still got The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois on my nightstand, and it’s a brick, so I don’t know if I’d be able to add this one, too, as tempting as it sounds.

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    • Isn’t it? I wonder why books are being delayed these days – in both directions! I seem to have confused everyone about the length of this one – it’s only about 460 pages. It was my review I was criticising for being too long, not the book. So you can easily fit it in… 😉

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  7. This was one of my books of the year for 2021, so I’m glad you loved it as much as I did! I’m also hoping there might be a sequel, as the second half of William’s life sounds equally fascinating. I don’t know whether you’ve read Andrew Greig’s previous book, Fair Helen, but it has a similar setting and writing style and I thought it was nearly as good as this one.

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    • I remembered you’d loved it too! It’s really such a pleasure to read a great Scottish historical fiction that isn’t about the Jacobites, and I loved Will as a character. We should get up a petition to force Greig to write that sequel! I haven’t read Fair Helen – I’ve only read a some of his newer books. Glad to hear it’s similar in style to this – I shall promptly add it to my list! Thanks for the recommendation. 😀

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    • The taster is a great sample of the style of the book overall, so if you liked it then I’m certain you’ll enjoy the book! He’s such a great writer, Will is a great character and the period it’s set in is so interesting – I’m hesitant to use the word “perfect” but… 😀

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    • Hahaha, well, I’m not sure younger Scots know all these old words but a lot of them were still in use when I was young! It is a wonderful book, and such a pleasure when there’s a perfect match between book and reader… 😀

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    • Oh yes, of course, you’re right there on the spot! I thought he did the settings brilliantly, both St Andrews and Edinburgh. So glad you loved it too – isn’t it great to have a book that isn’t about the Jacobites for once? 😉

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  8. Very glad this book more than fulfilled its promise! It’s on my wishlist of ‘books I’m waiting to be published in the US’. It sounds like it has a wonderful collection of characters, in a great setting, written about really well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t realised it’s not out over there yet – oh well, that gives you a few more months of eager anticipation! it really is a wonderful book, and although it’s very Scottish he handles the language so well there will be no difficulties for non-Scots in reading it. I hope you get as much pleasure from it as I did. 😀

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    • It is! The problem with a five-star system is that sometimes I want to give a book six! I do hope you enjoy it if you get to it – it gives a lovely flavour of Scottish language without lots of hard to read dialect. And the characters are so enjoyable… 😀

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  9. This sound fantastic! It’s such a great feeling when a book feels like it could have been written for you – rare but lovely. I want to read more historical fiction this year, so I think I’ll have to pick this up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is wonderful, and it’s such a pleasure to read a great Scottish novel – there’s not as many of them as I’d wish! I hope you enjoy it if you go for it – the setting is great and the characters are enjoyable to spend time with. It will be appearing in this year’s FF Awards for sure!

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    • I studied the Scottish Reformation briefly and always enjoy spotting the differences and similarities with the English Reformation. I hope you enjoy this one if you get to it – it’s a wonderful book! 😀

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